Romney's measured approach toward securing the tea party vote reflects short-run and longer-term considerations. Every lurch to the right could make it harder for him to win support next November from centrist voters who are deeply divided over the merits of the tea party movement.
Obama would clearly like to tie Romney to the movement, which, polls show, has been losing popularity. The re-election campaign titled a recent release "Mitt Romney Is Running on the Tea Party Platform." But that claim appears to be a stretch, for Romney's outreach pales compared with the likes of his rivals. Perry's latest effort to corral the tea party vote featured government-bashing rhetoric and radical changes such as cutting Congress' pay in half.
At the same time, Romney would like to sew up enough of the tea party vote to clinch the nomination quickly. His biggest challenge in that fight may be preventing Ron Paul from becoming the ultimate favorite of non-Romney voters. The Texas congressman is considered one of the fathers of the tea party movement and may be the only GOP candidate with the resources to go the distance in the primaries — and perhaps beyond.
"Any Republican, particularly Mitt Romney, needs a two-man race against Obama, but if Romney moves away from the tea party toward the middle, he might make himself very vulnerable to the one thing he and the Republican Party cannot afford, which is a third-party challenge from the right," according to said Peter Hart, who co-directs the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.
Tea party organizers say their supporters are at least as pragmatic as other Republicans. In interviews, tea party sympathizers in Iowa, where the first 2012 contest is just over six weeks away, say their attitudes toward Romney may well change over time.
Jeff Havenner, 60, a retired federal employee from Bettendorf, is leaning toward Perry but said he would support Romney if he were the nominee.
"Absolutely, without hesitation," he said. "Anyone who gets the (GOP) nomination gets my vote."
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